Small Gardening

The gardening world has been buzzing about small gardens. The current interest in this topic might reflect a trend toward small-scale properties or growing desire among gardeners to limit the time and energy they commit to gardening.

A small garden could be the entirety of a small property or an area within a large property. A large property might include several small gardens (sometimes called “rooms”) or one small garden plus undeveloped space, or something between those extremes.

In either case, the goal for small gardening should be quality gardening.

“We would do well to follow a common rule for our daily lives—do less, and do it better.” (Dale E. Turner)

When developing a small garden, all the usual criteria for plant selection and cultivation are applicable. Ensure that the soil is fertile, friable and well drained, and choose plants that are appropriate for the climate, sun exposure and prevailing winds of the garden.

In addition, three broad guidelines come to mind.

First, specify a theme beyond “small size.” The garden might focus on a genus (rose, iris, clematis, etc.), a category of plants (succulents, white blossoms, herbs), a plant community (California natives, African bulbs, aquatic plants) or any other theme of interest. A theme provides coherence to the garden and a rational approach to plant selection.

Second, provide a story line for visitors. The garden planner could guide a visitor’s attention by establishing a focal point: a well-placed, exceptional plant, a piece of garden art, or a water feature, etc. After that initial impression, the gardener or discrete signs might encourage a visitor to examine a series of specimen plants. A rose garden, for example, might showcase several hybrid teas or species roses for comparison.

Finally, plan the maintenance of the small garden for close inspection. No garden looks good when unkempt, but a neglected small garden can be particularly unsatisfying to both the gardener and the visitor. While fallen leaves, a forgotten watering hose and a few weeds can be tolerated in a large, sprawling garden, a small garden should be raked and pruned and tidied regularly. By virtue of being small, it should also be manageable.

The small garden is to a large garden as a sonnet is to free verse.


Here is a link to an article with additional thoughts about small gardening: “Big Help for Small Gardens.”

Sharing Plants

The fall season is both the best time for planting, and an excellent time for gardeners to share plants.

Plant and cutting exchanges, which are popular in the Monterey Bay area, invite gardeners to bring plants or cuttings from their garden to swap for plants or cuttings offered by another gardener.

That seems like a fair trade, but because plants vary greatly in size, condition and desirability, a really balanced exchange would be difficult to achieve.

Still, these exchanges often succeed without even requiring a contribution. They work because plants propagate naturally on their own: the gardener does not incur a significant cost, and still reaps the satisfaction of giving something of value to another gardener.

Cheap thrills!

Propagating plants for sharing require a significant investment of time: growing plants from seeds or cuttings and then giving them away could amount to a generous gift of the gardener’s time. However, opportunities exist for sharing plants with little effort.

For example, if your daffodils or irises need dividing, you could very well end up with a surplus of bulbs or rhizomes that you could share.

Another example: plants might self-propagate in your garden to the point that you have more than you want, and would prefer to reclaim the space for other plants.

In my garden, Pig’s Ear (Cotyledon orbiculata) and Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis) had grown too large. With the help of a friend, we uprooted dozens of each plant for others to propagate.

Succulent Cotyledons can be propagated most easily from tip cuttings.

Japanese Anemones are best propagated from root cuttings taken in the late fall or early winter. We lifted them rather early, but we saw vigorous new white shoots on the roots, and felt that they would re-root quickly in a new environment. This plant produces beautiful pink or white blossoms, and grows so readily that it’s almost invasive.

Plant society sales offer another sharing opportunity. While these are not free exchanges, they typically offer plants at below-market prices. And the gardeners who grow these plants gain satisfaction from sharing both their plants and their enthusiasms.

Watch for opportunities to share plants with your friends and neighbors. You will both grow from the experience.


The Web has very helpful information resources for plant propagation.

Wikipedia – Plant Propagation (often my first stop)


Stover’s Nursery

North Carolina State University

YouTube also offers several short video recordings (often simply produced) on aspects of plant propagation.

Cacti of the Sonoran Deseert

After a few days in the Sonoran Desert, my head is filled with thoughts of cacti.

I attended the annual meeting of the Garden Writers Association, attended by writers from many parts of the United States. This year’s meeting convened in Tucson, Arizona, which is within the upper part of the Sonoran Desert’s 120,000 square mile area, most which is in Mexico.

We locate Tucson in our southwest; Mexicans see it in their northwest.

The meeting included talks to inspire writing or teach up-to-date written and multimedia communication, numerous awards for outstanding writing, photography, videography and graphics, many exhibits by garden-related vendors, and bus trips to twelve public and private gardens in the Tucson area. Visit for more of my travel notes and photos.

For me, the primary effect of this occasion was exposure to the distinctive plant life of the area, especially the Cactus family, almost all members of which are native to the Americas.

The most prominent local cactus is the stately Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), which grows in the wild only in the Sonoran Desert. I saw specimens of about thirty feet high, but it can reach up to fifty or seventy feet.

Other cacti widespread in the area include the Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), Beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), Hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), Fishhook (Ferocactus wislizeni), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus spp.), and Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi).

According to Sunset’s Western Garden Book, these cacti could be grown in the Monterey Bay area, but we see them infrequently. This presumably reflects local gardeners’ preferences: with such a wide range of plants that thrive in our moderate climate, gardeners have many spineless horticultural options.

There are, however, important environmental conditions other than temperature that affect the growth of plants. Plants that grow in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert have evolved to adapt to the desert climate, characterized by a biseasonal rainfall pattern (late summer and early winter), and daily temperature ranges of about thirty degrees.

The Sonoran Desert also includes plants from the Agave, Palm, and Legume and other families. The large Legume family includes many varieties of peas and beans, plus alfalfa, clover, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soy peanuts, Locust trees, wisteria and the green-trunked Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeate), which grows throughout the Tucson area.

I have had no cacti in my garden, but the friends who hosted my visit gave me two specimens: a hybrid Echinopsis ‘Los Angeles’, which will grow to about eighteen inches, and produce pink flowers in late spring and early summer, and a Echinocereus morricalii, which also will grow to about eighteen inches and blossom in May in bright magenta.

Many cacti would not fit easily in my garden, but these small plants will fit fine and provide gorgeous flowers. Travel could broaden our gardening tastes!

More coming soon

Interesting Weeds

Yes, even weeds can be interesting. Here are two examples.

First, I’ve written about the “weed seed bank” that exists in all gardens. This inventory of dormant seeds lurks in the top few inches of soil, waiting for life-giving sunlight, air and moisture.

The weed seed bank results from earlier generations of weeds that dropped their seeds under the plant, projected them a few feet away or cast them to the winds for wider distribution. Such seeds might also be brought to the garden as the undigested part of a bird’s meal, tracked in on a visitor’s clothing, or imported with a plant from a friend or the local nursery. Whatever the source, they are part of every garden.

The weed seed bank might be called simply the seed bank, because it includes wildflowers and other garden-worthy plants as well as weeds. Abandoned gardens eventually sprout their hidden wealth of weeds and wildflowers.

Weed seeds can remain in the soil, ready for germination, for several years. Gardeners are wise to use mulch to discourage the germination of weeds and help realize “low maintenance” gardening.

Dormant seeds can be amazingly long-lived under the right conditions. Earlier this year, Russian scientists reported their discovery in Siberia of seeds that a squirrel had buried in the Early Pleistocene era, about 31,800 years ago. The seeds soon were frozen in permafrost and didn’t thaw until retrieved by the research team. With great care, scientist Svetlana Yashina cared for the seeds, which germinated and produced a flowering plant and a new generation of seeds.

The plant is the Narrow-leaved Campion (Silene stenophylla), once known by mammoths and wooly rhinos. An evolved form of this plant grows today in Arctic regions. The genus Silene includes many species, including several wildflowers of Europe and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.

The story of bringing this prehistoric plant into blossom raises the possibility that more plants could be recovered from frozen seeds in Siberia, the Arctic and the Yukon, and the intriguing prospect for the gardeners to grow prehistoric weeds and other plants. Examples of other specimens include the Sago Cycad (Cycas revoluta) and the Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba). Both of these plants, which are distant relatives, have fossil histories from more than 250 million years ago, and are available today as young plants.


A second example of interest in these lowly plants involves harvesting them for the dinner table. Dandelions and purslanes are only a beginning. A new cookbook, Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market, by Tama Matsuoka Wong, with chef Eddy Leroux, describes many culinary and nutritional benefits of several common weeds. Ms. Wong’s website, Meadows and More, offers more details and an extensive weed identification section.


For more about the prehistoric Narrow-leaved Campion (Silene stenophylla), including pictures, browse to the article in Discover magazine.

Another interesting ancient plant is the Amborella trichopoda (no common name), which has been called “the most primitive living flowering plant.” It may be the earliest of the angiosperms: flowering plants that emerged about 130,000,000 years ago. A useful article about this plant is available on Wikipedia. This Arboretum at the University of California, Santa Cruz is the only place in the United States that is growing this plant for botanical study. For a 1999 article on the Arboretum’s work with this plant, click here.

For more information on the book, Foraged Flavor, browse to the New York Times article.

Ms. Wong’s website, Meadows and More, has a wealth of information on culinary uses of common weeds, and an extensive series of weed photographs, with expert identifications.

For identification of weeds that are common in California, visit the Weed Photo Gallery on the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management website.

Coming to Grips with Thrips

Happily, several years have passed since I’ve noticed thrips in my garden, but they are back!

Thrips are flying insects that are less than 1/20 of an inch long and eager to suck juices from plants. There are over 500 genera and 5,000 species of thrips, some of which are beneficial predators of mites, scales and even other thrips. Others feed on fungal spores or pollen, and some feed only on favored plants, such as avocados, citrus, blueberries, or various others.

My garden’s visitors almost certainly are Western Garden Thrips (Franklinia occidentalis), which attack a wide range of herbaceous ornamentals, vegetables, fruits and some shrubs and trees, including roses and stone fruits.

Thrips are poor flyers but can find juicy plants and infest all of a large shrub or a good-sized bed of a plant that they find tasty.

In my garden, they found a 200 sq. ft. bed of Bergenias (an unidentified cultivar of the popular species, Bergenia crassifolia). This plant from central Asia has numerous common names: Elephant Ears, Pig Squeak, Large Rockfoil, etc. It is an attractive groundcover plant, growing one-to-two feet high, with clusters of small, bell-shaped pink flowers on stems that rise above the foliage in early spring.

Bergenias are generally free of pests, at least until thrips discover them.

Thrips might make only limited damage to ornamental plants and could be ignored. When conditions are favorable, however, they can cause great cosmetic damage.

When thrips attacked my Bergenia bed, nearly all the leaves, each about four by six inches, became discolored and distorted, and their upper surfaces turned silvery gray, the result of losing their waxy surface. The leaves also were stippled with black specks of the thrips’ fecal matter.

The normal growth of Bergenias has new leaves emerging above older leaves that turn brown without dropping off. New leaves cover the old leaves, but removing the dead leaves improves the plant’s appearance. In this instance, the action of the thrips revealed the dead leaves, and the entire bed was devastated.

The damage was limited to the leaves. The stems and roots of the plants were alive and well, and able to produce new leaves. Our treatment was to remove all living and dead leaves, using garden clippers, and then spray the plants with Spinosad, an organic pesticide that kills insects both by direct contact and by ingestion.

I used a Spinosad-based product, Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew, in a container designed conveniently as a hose-end sprayer. Despite its promising name, the spray doesn’t guarantee success: a follow-up spray might be needed to control the newest of up to eight generations of thrips for the year.


Thrips are members of the order Thysanoptera. The earliest fossils of thrips date to the Permian Period, 250 to 299 million years ago. This period was the last part of the Paleozoic Era, which ended with the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history, when nearly 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species died out.

That thrips were among the survivors of that period suggests the difficulty of eliminating them from our gardens.

When the gardener suspects that thrips are present, they can be detected either by close examination of the underside of affected leaves, or by beating or shaking a branch or flower onto a sheet of paper. Yellow sticky traps also can be used to monitor their presence.

The most important way to encourage biological control of pest thrips is to conserve naturally occurring populations of beneficial insects, e.g., predatory thrips, minute pirate bugs, predaceous mites, and green lacewings . This can be done by controlling dust and avoiding the use of persistent pesticides in the garden.

For other control, see the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management information page on How to Manage Pests—Thrips.

Gopher Overview

Most of these columns are on current priorities in my own garden. The premise of course is that many gardeners could be dealing with the same issues at any given time.

Recently, when we listened to those people who always seem to know what’s going at, we learned that 2012 is a big year for gophers.

In the past, I have relied on two visiting cats to keep my garden gopher-free. (I don’t know where else they get their food, so they probably are feral felines.) The result of their advancing age plus a peak in the local gopher birth rate is a record number of gopher mounds.

It might be possible to avoid gopher problems entirely by limiting the garden to plants that gophers do not enjoy. This approach limits the gardening experience severely and still might not succeed: hungry gophers don’t always follow the rules.

The first step toward “control” (the polite term) is to confirm that you have gophers, rather than relatively harmless moles. Gophers are herbivores; moles are omnivores, but mostly eat earthworms and insects. Gopher mounds are crescent or horseshoe shaped when viewed from above. The hole, off to one side of the mound, usually is plugged. Mole mounds are more circular and volcano-shaped when viewed from the side.

One gopher can create and abandon several mounds in day, so the gardener’s challenge is to find the gopher’s main burrow, which will be six-to-twelve inches deep and connected to a mound. When you see a fresh-looking mound, poke around with a stick or metal probe until you feel a drop of about two inches, indicating that the probe has entered the burrow. This might be the main burrow, where you should set your traps.

Use a shovel to expose the burrow enough to set your traps. The popular Cinch Trap, available at most garden centers, comes in small, medium and large sizes. Use the size that fits snugly in the burrow you found. Set two traps according to instructions (watch your fingers!) and place them in opposite directions in the burrow, to trap the gopher coming from either direction.

Baiting the traps is optional. Fruits, vegetables or peanut butter are good choices. You could also use toxic baits, but that is personal choice and probably not ecologically wise.

Connect the traps to stakes with baling wire or light chain, for easy removal. Cover the excavation with dirt clods, wood, cardboard or anything else to exclude light.

Check the traps regularly and reset them as needed. If you haven’t caught a gopher in three days, try a different location.

Benjamin Franklin probably wasn’t thinking about garden pests when he said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things,” but that’s good advice for gopher hunters.

Growing Gorgeous Geophytes

The fall season invites gardeners to plant bulbs to blossom in the spring and create bright swaths of color for the new gardening year.

Right now is an excellent time to design bulb bed(s) and select spring bulbs for the garden. There is a lot to consider.

One strategy is to favor the most familiar bulbs, choosing either old favorites or recent introductions. The most popular bulbs include Daffodils (Narcissus), Tulips (Tulipa), Hyacinths (Hyacinthus) and Dutch Crocuses (Crocus vernus). Garden centers offer many varieties of these plants: the long popularity of daffodils and tulips in particular has motivated hybridizers to develop a range of colors and interesting forms.

The next most familiar bulbous plants include Lilies of the Valley (Convallaria, from rhizomes), Spanish Bluebells (Scillas), Grecian Windflowers (Anemones, from tubers), Snowdrops (Galanthus), Dwarf Irises (Iris reticulata, from bulbs), and Grape Hyacinths (Muscari). There are many appealing options within these genera, as well.

Adventuresome gardeners can explore a long list of less familiar bulbs, each of which brings unique characteristics. Visit my website,, for links to additional options.

A different group of geophytes are summer-bloomers. This group includes Gladioli, Calla Lilies, Dahlias, Tuberous Begonias, and Crocosmias. They are planted in the early spring about the same time we plant tomato seedlings.

Other geophytes we enjoy are fall-bloomers, which are planted in the late summer: Autumn Crocus, Winter Daffodil, Guernsey Lily, Saffron Crocus, and some species of Snowdrops.

With planning, you could enjoy glamorous geophytes during much of the gardening year.

Some spring-blooming bulbs need a chilling period to bloom their best. Winter in the Monterey Bay area rarely provides a chill that is long enough and cold enough for these plants, so schedule six weeks of cold storage. The kitchen refrigerator will suffice except for larger projects, when gardeners will appreciate the luxury of a second refrigerator. Consider organizing a chilling co-op with gardening friends.

Many mail order bulb sellers offer pre-chilled bulbs to be shipped at the right time for local planting. A welcome service!

Here are the basics of planting bulbs. Choose a site that receives all-day sun, and drains well. Select larger bulbs of the preferred genus. Plant the bulbs at a depth that is about three times the bulb’s diameter, and take care to position them with the pointed end up.

Bulbs can be planted very close together and may be arranged in either formal or informal patterns. Fertilizers are not required, but a small amount of bone meal in the planting hole could help. For clay soil, add compost to improve drainage. Water to settle the soil then let the seasonal rains take over.

Prepare now for a spectacular spring.


Information About Uncommon Geophytes

North Carolina State University

The Plant Expert

Pacific Bulb Society Wiki

Mail-order Suppliers of Uncommon Geophytes

Brent and Beck’s Bulbs

Odyssey Bulbs

Telos Rare Bulbs

African Bulbs

The Bulb Man

Mulch for Much Easier Gardening

Mulching represents a gardener’s not-so-secret strategy for achieving the universal objective: a low-maintenance garden.

If your garden is time-consuming, frustrating and disappointing, it probably needs mulching.

Several other possible causes should be considered: nutrient-poor soil, lack of irrigation, inappropriate plant selection, etc., but let’s focus for the moment on mulching.

A three-inch deep layer of an organic mulch between plants discourages weed growth, conserves water and, in time, breaks down to add nutrients and texture to garden soil.

We should not ignore the downsides of mulching. For example, a larger garden will require several cubic yards of organic mulch, leading to significant charges from a landscape supply company for the material and its delivery. In addition, distributing the mulch within the garden, while not difficult, consumes time and energy.

One more downside: organic mulches decompose in time, so the time and expense will have to be incurred again. Finer mulch materials break down faster than coarse materials.

Some organic mulch is free, e.g., disease-free wood chips that tree services will dump on your property, upon request (to avoid landfill charges), or seaweed harvested during low tide. Wood chips might be regarded as less attractive than finer mulches, and seaweed, although excellent in nutrient content, often is troublesome to gather, buddy and smelly.

A landscape supply company will offer a variety of organic mulches in bulk, e.g., redwood sawdust, shredded cedar, fir bark and gorilla hair (shredded redwood bark, really), in a range of sizes and prices.

Another option is cocoa shell mulch, which is available in bags of two cubic feet for about $5.00. This material looks good, emits a nice fragrance and breaks down slowly, but contains theobromine, a natural compound that if eaten is highly toxic to dogs and cats.

The gardener could consider each of the available options, and perhaps try a sample bag in the garden.

Home supply stores offer organic mulches in bags of two cubic feet of material. These can be appropriate for smaller beds, but for larger projects will be more expensive than bulk materials. To move one or two yards of mulch, it’s good to have a friend with a pickup truck.

Gravel mulch might be preferred for a rock garden or succulent garden. For a rock garden in particular, gravel mulch simulates scree, the debris of broken rock seen on mountain slopes.

Like organic mulches, gravel mulch discourages weeds, conserves moisture and looks better than bare soil.  Gravel is much more expensive per cubic yard than organic mulches, but a one-inch layer should be enough and gravel doesn’t decompose. Gravel mulch is difficult to remove, so for practical purposes treat the installation as permanent.

Enjoy your mulched garden.


Estimating Mulch Needs

To decide how much material you will need, estimate the surface area of the garden bed(s) to be mulched: length times width (in feet). Multiple by the intended depth of the mulch layer: for a three-inch layer, multiply by .25. Finally, convert cubic feet to cubic yards by dividing by 27.

Example: a 12 feet x 18 feet garden bed has a surface area of 216 square feet. For a three-inch layer of mulch, .25 x 216 yields 54 cubic feet. Divide by 27 to determine a need for two yards of mulch.

Seaweed Mulch

An interesting article, How to Use Seaweed to Mulch Your Garden, is available on the website for Eartheasy: Solutions for Sustainable Living. Gardeners who live close to the beach might wish to try this mulch material, but it seems too smelly and buggy for my taste. It also decomposes into slime rather quickly.


Pruning Lavender

Pruning chores can frustrate gardeners when they are unsure of their knowledge. While they might understand that pruning improves the plant somehow, after they have devoted time and energy to growing the plant, trimming the plant’s growth might seem counter-productive.

Pruning the lavender plant puzzles many gardeners, so let us take a look at best practices.

We prune lavenders to stimulate new green growth, which produces flowers, and to slow the formation of older woody growth, which does not produce flowers. Traditionally, we prune lavenders to compact mounding forms that look attractive and yield maximum blooms.

There are two good times of the year to prune lavender plants: in the early spring, before they begin seasonal growth, and in the late summer, after their bloom period. Fall begins on September 22nd, so now is pruning time.

Here is a way to confirm that your lavender is ready to prune. Take a break in the garden, sit quietly near your lavender plant(s) and watch the bees. If they flit from blossom to blossom without lingering to feed, you will know that the blooms are finished for the year and it is pruning time.

Pruning shears will do the job, but use hedge shears to make quick work of pruning. When pruning several lavender plants, an electric hedge trimmer will be the tool of choice.

In any case, ensure that the pruning tool is sharp enough for clean cuts, and wipe it down between plants with rubbing alcohol or bleach to remove any harmful bacteria or germs.

When pruning, remove about one-third of the green growth to stimulate new growth. Do not cut into the woody stems: they will not produce new green growth and cutting too deeply could kill the plant.

If you have the time and patience for precision pruning, cut just above the third node above the woody part of the stem. Most gardeners will keep this rule of thumb in mind without actually counting nodes on each stem.

This process should be repeated in the early spring.

Start this twice-yearly pruning schedule when the plant is still young, i.e., the second year after putting a new plant in the ground. This delay allows time for the plant to establish its roots.

Gardeners might encounter a lavender plant that has not been pruned routinely for three years or more and has become rangy and unattractive, with long woody stems and minimal blossoms. Sadly, the plant cannot then be pruned to rediscover the preferred tight mound form, and should be replaced.

With these guidelines, the gardener will find pruning lavenders quick and easy, and finish the task with a nice fragrance from the lavender’s aromatic oils.

Enjoy your lavender!


There are minor differences in pruning recommendations for the various species of lavender. For this reason, the gardener should be aware of the particular species that is to be pruned.

The most popular species of lavender for residential gardening are English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), French Lavender (L. dentata)  and Spanish Lavender (L. stoechas).  Another form that may be seen is Lavandin or Hedge Lavender (L. x Intermedia), which is a cross (hybrid) of English Lavender and Spike Lavender (L. latifolia).

English Lavender’s flower petals unfurl along much of the length of its long stocks. Its green, narrow leaves largely lack the silver and gray cast of the other varieties. It is available in several cultivars. Sunset’s Western Garden Book lists the following: Alba, Blue Cushion, Buena Vista, Compacta, Hidcote, Jean Davis, Lady, Martha Roderick, Melissa, Munstead, Rosea, and Thumbelina Leigh. A light pruning after early-summer flowering often will promote reblooming later in the summer. In late summer, cut back to one-third or even one-half of stem length, as outlined above.

French Lavender has looser-looking, light purple flowers. Their grayish leaves appear more serrated (or dented) than those of their Spanish cousin (the specific name dentata means “toothed”). Prune after flowering remove about one-third of stem length.

Spanish Lavender has tight, deep purple blooms that are shaped like pine cones. Four petals reach skyward, distinctly shaped like rabbit ears. The flower spikes are highly compressed and surmounted by showy, large, sterile bracts. Some varieties have white flowers. The bushes grow about 18 inches tall, with silvery-green leaves. Cultivars include Hazel, Kew Red, Otto Quast, Willow Vale, Wings of Night and Winter Bee.

Hedge Lavender cultivars are Abrialii, Dutch, Fred Boutin, Grosso, Provence, Silver Edge, White Spikes, and others.




Landscaping with Succulents

The many gardeners who appreciate succulent plants will have two informative events—with plant-buying opportunities—in September, so this is a good time to plan ahead.

Let’s start with two information fragments, for the record:

  • all cactuses are succulents, but all succulents are not cactuses, and
  • succulents, found in many different botanical families, are simply plants that store moisture.

The first event will be the Annual Show and Sale of the Monterey Bay Cactus and Succulent Society. This occasion will be in the large patio of Jardines Restaurant, 115 Third Street, San Juan Batista. It happens from 9:00 to 5:00, Saturday, September 15th and (9:00 to 4:00, Sunday September 16th. Hint: make a luncheon reservation when you first arrive.

The second event, on Friday, September 28th and Saturday, September 29th, will be the Second Annual Succulent Extravaganza!,at Succulent Gardens: The Growing Grounds. This sprawling nursery for succulent plants is at 2133 Elkhorn Road, Castroville (near Moss Landing; check it out on Mapquest or Google Maps). The schedule will be 9:00 to 4:00 on both days, plus a BBQ from 4:00 to 6:00 on Friday. The schedule of speakers will be posted soon at

When gardeners see the vast arrays of succulent plants at these events, they might experience the immediate reaction, “What fascinating/beautiful/striking plants!” and the slightly delayed reaction, “How could I use these plants in my garden?”

The aesthetic reaction could happen repeatedly while viewing a large display: succulents take many forms, size and colors, and are particularly striking when in bloom. This response involves the gardener’s own idea of attractiveness, so we will leave it to the individual.

The planning reaction relates to both the gardener’s personal preferences and his or her unique environment for new succulent plants. For these reasons, landscape design must be an ongoing local project, but still there are a few principles to consider.

There are two major categories of landscaping with succulents: succulents alone and succulents with companion plants (also known as “mixed beds”). We could identify countless additional categories of landscaping with succulents, including container gardening with succulents, but let’s start with these two.

There are many books and websites that provide detailed information on succulent plants, but very few that offer insights into landscaping with succulents. One book that does this very well is Dry Climate Gardening with Succulents (1995) by Debra Brown Folsom, with John Trager, James Folsom, Joe Clements, and Nancy Scott. The authors, all connected with the world-class Desert Garden at The Huntington Botanical Gardens, consulted with experts from six other gardens to produce this exceptional reference. Look for it today in your public library and on

Enjoy September’s two big succulent events.


“Succulent-only” Landscape Designs

The design of a landscape—or a garden bed—limited to succulents still involves basic decisions before the selection of individual plants.

One option would be limit to the bed to a single species. A mass effect can bring interest to the landscape, particularly when the bed is a feature within the larger picture. Having multiple specimens of a single species focuses the viewer on the details of the plant.

In some gardens, we see beds devoted to essentially random groupings of succulents, with no apparent relationship to one another. There are succulent plants in 60 different plant families, divided into 300 genera that include many succulent species. Visit the website of The Succulent Plant Page for more information on this point.

This “succulent universe” presents a very large number of possible combinations of plants, suggesting that a thematic approach of almost any description would elevate the design from hodgepodge to something more comprehensible to the viewer.

Variations of the “succulents only” design include a collection of plants within a genus, from a geographic region, or from a selected plant community. Each of these variations provides a degree of satisfying coherence to the design.

Additional thematic possibilities for such a design might emphasize combination of form, blossom color or foliage color.

Landscape Designs that Combine Succulents and Companions

According to the authors of Dry Climate Gardening with Succulents, the designer’s objectives for combining succulents with non-succulents might include providing contrast, counterpoint and accents, bringing out the best in both the succulents and the companion plants, or providing interest during periods when the succulents are not in bloom.

In any event, the designer’s first consideration should be to ensure that the companion plants have cultural requirements that are compatible with the succulent plants. Generally, this means bright light, minimal water with good drainage, good air circulation and balanced fertilizer during the growing season. These requirements orient the designer to the selection of xerophytic shrubs, i.e., plants that are adapted to a dry habitat.

This consideration leads the designer away from lush tropical plants, because they have different cultural needs and simply don’t look natural together with succulents. While it is always possible for a creative designer to find interest in unlikely combinations, most will do well by separating succulents and tropicals.

A large number of drought-tolerant plants are suitable as companion plants in a succulent garden. Indeed,there are many succulents that grow well with less than full exposure to the sun, so the number of drought-tolerant plants that thrive with partial exposure to sunlight could be added to this list.

The best companion plants for succulent gardens, however, are desert shrubs and trees. They have very similar cultural requirements, many similar physical characteristics, and in some cases different physical characteristics that provide a welcome counterpoint to the succulents. As an example of a desirable difference, Dry Climate Gardening with Succulents offers the Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica), an evergreen Mexican shrub with brilliant red feathery blooms. This book recommends many more non-succulent plants for the succulent garden.

Ultimately, aesthetic considerations should guide the designer in the selection of companion plants for succulents. When possible, bring a candidate plant to the succulent bed in a pot to assess how it would look when planted. As always, this will be the individual gardener’s decision.

Landscaping with succulents, with or without non-succulent companion plants, offers the garden designer an intriguing list of challenges and opportunities. Enjoy your garden!